Who by Fire is a reverent, accomplished tribute album that both honors both Cohen and retains First Aid Kit’s particular character.
Recorded a few months after Leonard Cohen’s death, Who By Fire is a heartfelt tribute album of his music performed live by Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit, a mainstay in the modern folk/Americana scene. The result is a beautiful effort that builds on the existing work of the all-time master songwriter, a welcome contrast to the majority of cover albums which tend to serve as an artist’s personal push to reach the heights (or audience) of another artist.
The concert is structured according to multiple spoken-word interludes. Cohen’s poetry was as integral to processing his message as his albums were, a reflection of his deepest held beliefs, and Who by Fire opens with a reading of his poem “Tired,” a timeless piece about the exhaustion felt in a world that is always in motion, and a surrender of the constraints that are put upon us. This runs directly into a rendition of “Suzanne,” a classic Cohen hit from his album Songs of Leonard Cohen, and from the first notes, it’s impossible to miss the immense respect that sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg feel for his music. Minimal changes are made, except for the addition of their signature harmonies, and it’s in this that the album’s greatest strengths are shown. Obvious technical talent is on display, with a full live band backing the sisters, but it’s delivered with a reverence that is more deeply felt in the immediate wake of Cohen’s death. Concertgoers are silent, hanging on every word (this is obviously more notable in the video livestream), a shared respect palpable between artists and audience. The finely-curated setlist continues to easily flow through Cohen classics, incorporating “Avalanche,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 5,” “You Want it Darker,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Hallelujah” into the performance/album, each all-timer interspersed with more of his poetry. The closing song and poetry pair of “So Long Marianne” and “You’d Sing Too” act as a beautiful, final portrait of the artist moment and punctuation on his enduring legacy: “You’d sing / You’d sing / not for yourself / but to make a self.”
First Aid Kit’s initial rise to indie fame came courtesy of a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” uploaded to YouTube. The young musicians sang clearly and confidently, notably adding their own flair to a well-loved song. Having now spent considerable years on tour, they’ve carried on this tradition, paying respect to their breakthrough with interesting covers, often sourcing from outside of their own genre — Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” was a staple of their mid-2010s shows, for instance. So for them, a tribute show wasn’t an opportunity to capitalize on Cohen clout, but a next logical step on their respective journey, and it’s a boon for listeners that this was recorded and released for all to hear. So as we wait for another original project from the sisters, it’s good to here briefly revel in a reminder of where they came from and where they can go, all while they respectfully do the same for one who came before.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 4.